Wednesday, July 11, 2012

General Convention: Same-gender rite gets blessing

The Rev. Ruth Meyers, professor from CDSP
presenting A029 to the House of Deputies
Certainly the major news coming out of General Convention, our highest governing body, meeting this week in Indianapolis, is the approval of a single liturgical rite for the blessing of same-gender couples.

The House of Deputies on Tuesday concurred with the House of Bishops in assenting to Resolution A049 that authorizes a "provisional" liturgical ceremony for such couples. 

General Convention meets only every three years, so it is momentous event for the Episcopal Church that, as some deputies put it, represents a "turning point" in this long controversial issue.

The lead story today in Episcopal News Service began this way:

[Episcopal News Service -- Indianapolis] Same-gender couples soon can have their lifelong relationships blessed using a rite approved by General Convention July 10.
You may ask, though, what is new here? The moment felt a bit anti-climatic. Same-sex couples have been blessed in ceremonies by Episcopal priests for at least 30 years, though until recently, not always with the permission of bishops, and often in someone's backyard and not inside a church building. Until recently, they were mostly outlaw blessings.

Three years ago, General Convention allowed bishops to "provide a generous pastoral response" to gay and lesbian couples by allowing blessings. What those blessings would look and sound like was left to the bishops. 

Meanwhile, for the past three years a team at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, led by the Rev. Dr. Ruth Meyers, embarked on an extensive study of the theological and biblical foundations for blessing same-sex couples. They published an extensive report and a proposed liturgy -- the liturgy, with a few revisions, that was adopted by General Convention this week.

Also meanwhile, in the Diocese of Virginia, Bishop Shannon Johnston asked those of us who wanted to proceed with such blessings to follow an intentional process of discernment with our congregations before going forward. Because there is a plethora of liturgies floating around in the church's ethernet, Bishop Johnston also required us to bring our proposed liturgies to him for approval.

Here at St. Paul's, we spent a year in study, prayer and discernment in the congregation on the topic of blessings, marriage and the history and doctrine of the Church. You can read all of our presentations on a special blog by clicking HERE

With the approval of Bishop Johnston, we held our first blessing ceremony of a lesbian couple in April for two longtime members who have lived in a committed partnered relationship for many years. The entire parish was invited, and it was a truly glorious day.

So what is new here from General Convention? And what does it mean?

The immediate impact of General Convention's action is that there will be a single "provisional" liturgical rite for such blessings. Our prayer book has a single rite for marriage, and now there will be a single rite for the blessing of same-sex couples. This represents one more step among many in a long journey rather than a startling tidal shift. 

I suspect that Bishop Johnston will still want to review what we are doing before we do it. 

During the debate at General Convention, there were a number of speakers, both for and against, who equated the rite with marriage ceremonies. It certainly sounds like marriage, looks like marriage, feels like marriage. A number of people who came to our blessing at St. Paul's in April called it a "wedding," though the couple and myself were careful to not call it that. I suspect in years to come such blessings will be called "weddings," but we must also be mindful that the Church -- even the The Episcopal Church -- is not quite there yet.
In a little noticed move a few days ago in the House of Bishops, Bishop Johnston successfully inserted an amendment to A049, the same-sex blessing resolution, that would, in effect, prohibit heterosexual couples from using the same-sex blessing liturgy for their marriage ceremonies. Indeed, some speakers at General Convention said they would have liked the same-sex liturgy at their weddings. With Bishop Johnston's amendment, at least theoretically, that won't happen. His amendment keeps at least some semblance of a wall around the Holy Matrimony liturgy in the prayer book.
The Rev. David Thurlow, of South Carolina,
presents minority report opposing same-gender blessings
In watching the debates this week in the House of Bishops and House of Deputies, I was grateful there was no triumphalism or gloating. The self-righteous tone was gone that has characterized all sides at previous conventions on the topic of gay rights. And that was to the good. I did not hear anyone threaten to leave the Episcopal Church if they did not get there way, probably because those who have threatened to leave in the past have gone.
I must admit that I have come a long way on this issue myself over the years, as have many people. I was not always in favor of same-sex blessings or marriage equality. I've traveled a large distance, and I pray others will, too.
Yet, maybe because I have traveled such a long distance on this topic, I have also struggled to understand what one of my friends terms "the pain of the conservatives." 
Why should including a marginalized persecuted group be painful for the majority? I don't quite get that. 
I was helped immensely yesterday in the debate by the Rev. David Thurlow of South Carolina who gave a respectful minority report explaining why he and others oppose the blessing of same-sex couples:
“For 2,000 years, the church has had clear teaching regarding marriage...We haven’t taken heed of the universal voice of the church universal or the Anglican Communion. This resolution marks a clear and significant departure — theological, doctrinal and in worship — from the doctrine, discipline and worship of Christ as this church has received them.” 
The fear expressed is that by our inclusion, we will as a church have excluded ourselves from the wider Church-writ-large. Our General Convention's action does put us at odds with much of the Anglican Communion, the Roman Catholic Church and much (but not all) of the Protestant world. There will be a reaction, and it will not be pleasant, and there will be people in our church who feel excluded from the larger Church by no action of their own.

And that brings me to a question: How can we include the marginalized without excluding others? Why should inclusion bring exclusion?

My only answer -- the only possible answer I can have -- is to look to Jesus who marches into the tombs to bring everyone out, to free us from fear and death. He included all and invited everyone to his table. No one was kicked out.

"And this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations." (Matthew 24:14)

By James Richardson, St. Paul's Memorial Church, Fiat Lux

No comments: